The historic fur trade era in the Colorado region, which began in the early nineteenth century, ushered in a period of direct contact between Native Americans and whites. By this time, the hides and robes provided by Colorado’s furbearing animals had become valuable commodities in American and European markets. White trappers and traders constructed the first permanent American outposts as places to take in furs and robes. As this trade waned in the mid-nineteenth century, many of the posts were abandoned. However, several of these locations remained important to later emigrant or freighting operations and served as future sites of many Colorado cities and towns.
Vague accounts exist of trading posts built by French traders on the Arkansas River and in the western plains of Colorado in the eighteenth century. The Spanish also built such posts during this time or even earlier in the upper Arkansas region, but these early French and Spanish posts have not been located and are known only through vague historical references. Explorer Zebulon Pike built a stockade in the San Luis Valley shortly before being detained by the Spanish in 1807, and the Spanish constructed a short-lived military fort in 1819 to limit foreign access through Sangre de Cristo Pass west of modern-day Walsenburg. Fort Uncompahgre, built in 1828 on the Gunnison River in western Colorado, was the first fort unequivocally established in Colorado for the fur trade.
In his overview of the fur trade in Colorado, William Butler indicates that twenty-four trading posts were built in the state between 1800 and 1850. They varied from small wooden buildings, such as Gant’s Post on Fountain Creek, to those that resembled settlements, such as Buzzard’s Roost near modern-day Pueblo, to large adobe stockades, such as Bent’s Old Fort on the Arkansas River. Several locations in the state were home to multiple forts, particularly on the South Platte River, where Fort Vasquez, Fort Lupton, Fort Jackson, and Fort St. Vrain were built along a thirteen-mile stretch of the river and operated simultaneously from 1837 to 1839.
Most of these trading posts did not survive the collapse of the fur trade in the early 1840s; however, some, such as Bent’s Old Fort, became an important stopping point along the Santa Fé Trail, the commercial link between Mexico and the United States. Other locations, such as El Pueblo and Greenhorn, were early communities founded by trappers and traders. As the earliest permanent non-native establishments in Colorado, these posts were important centers of economic and social activity among trappers, traders, and Native Americans. In the nineteenth century, as the economic focus shifted from the fur trade to mining, ranching, and farming, these posts became centers of commerce for many early communities in Colorado.